Earlier this week I was at WeMedia 08 in Miami, where I was on a panel about the Knight News Challenge. (Last year, Adam Glenn and I won a Knight News Challenge grant to fund our community journalism project, the Boulder Carbon Tax Tracker.) Also on the panel were Gary Kebbel, director of the News Challenge progam for the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and fellow grantee Nora Paul of the University of Minnesota.
Here are five points I think are useful to anyone considering applying for a News Challenge grant, based on Adam’s and my experience so far.
1. Not sure your idea can work? Good!
They call it the News “Challenge” for a very good reason: As far as I can tell, none of the News Challenge winners are attempting projects that are obvious “sure things.” Knight’s goal is to fund pioneering news projects with the potential to build and bind community. Yeah, “pioneers” — otherwise known as “the guys with the arrows in their backs.” Pioneering in the media field takes courage to persist in the face of uncertainty, skepticism, and setbacks. In my opinion, Knight is demonstrating exactly the kind of courage they wish to support through this program.
2. Don’t over-think your initial application.
From what I’ve heard, several News Challenge applicants and winners spent considerable time (sometimes weeks or months) painstakingly crafting their initial application. In contrast, Adam and I brainstormed a few dozen potential projects, narrowed it down to a short list of just over a dozen ideas we thought were strongest, and submitted applications for each of those. Boulder Carbon Tax Tracker happened to be the one that “stuck.”
The News Challenge process will guide you through fleshing out your initial concepts both logistically and financially — so trying to figure out all the details up front won’t necessarily gain you any ground. IMHO, it’s more important to find strong ideas that match the News Challenge goals, express those ideas clearly, and convey that you have the passion, skills, and resources to give your ideas at least a decent chance of success.
3. Expect a learning curve with the grant world.
A great thing about News Challenge is that these grants are not just for nonprofits and academics. Companies, independent professionals (like Adam and me), and other nontraditional grant recipients are welcome to apply and can indeed win. If, like me, you’ve never applied for or gotten a foundation grant before, be sure to budget some time as part of your project to learn how to work with this process. It’s not onerous or scary, but it is a whole new financial and procedural world. The experience is valuable and positive, but it will require some work and time.
4. Have a plan A, B, C, and D — and budget for ALL of them.
What if your initial strategy doesn’t work? You don’t give up, you keep trying with Plan B. What if that doesn’t work either? Or the next option? If you’re truly pioneering new media territory, make sure you plan to be adaptable — and budget for adaptability as best you can. Knight wants all its grantees to succeed; but they really expect to learn important lessons from each and every grant.
In my personal opinion, this is one way the News Challenge proposal refining process could be improved — more emphasis on planning and budgeting for adaptive strategies.
5. Be honest with yourself, and with Knight.
When your initial approach either doesn’t work or hits snags, be sure to speak up and turn to Knight for guidance sooner rather than later. This can be scary because no one wants to “disappoint” a major funder with news of setbacks or missteps. But the News Challenge process is rather different from winning a contract to implement a project.
Remember that Knight is basically funding an R&D process here. They sincerely want to learn — and often you learn more useful information from problems and missteps than from perfection. Again: Keep adapting, and share what you learn, and you won’t really “fail” here.
…Anyway, those are my tips.
I encourage people with a passion for changing how media works so it can serve communities better to apply for News Challenge grants. I’d definitely do it again.
This was also my first grant experience. We fell into the camp of spending several weeks on writing a single proposal. I didn’t really think we’d get the grant, until we actually got it.
So what have I learned? A lot of it comes from stumbling through managing a grant for the first time.
But to add to Amy’s great advice above:
1. I’d be realistic about time. My project has taken way more time than I could have ever imagined. I wish I had budgeted for more money so that I could focus solely on this project, rather than imagining it as a part-time endeavor.
2. Volunteers are a pain. We thought we’d harness the energy of lots of volunteers. We did get a lot. But managing them was a whole project unto itself. Sometimes we wondered if it wouldn’t just be easier to do some of the research ourselves, rather than contantly harassing volunteers to get their work done. We shifted some money midway through to “hire” a dedicated researcher who was way more productive and motivated.
3. Technology: Simple is better. Someone offered to build our project site for free using Drupal. We got what we paid for. After messing around with it for months and failing to get it up to snuff, we finally dropped it in favor of a Ning site that took 10 minutes to set up and is effortless to manage.
4. Call on fellow grantees. I’m humbled to be part of such an amazing group of folks. They’re smart, generous, and eager to help each other. Maybe we just got lucky. But don’t hesitate to tap this wealth of experience and ideas.